Nicolas Winding Refn: Acting is not just Acting

Ah, how we love our famous couples on the silver screen. Jack & Rose, Ross & Rachel and Forrest and Jenny, to name but a few.

Sometimes there are those couples on the screen whose love is so beautiful and pure, that it’s almost irritating. Love at first sight. Acceptance of each other’s deepest, darkest secrets, and that ever-present motivation to make it better than it was yesterday.

Man, those couples have it great. Of course, this is unreachable by anyone in the real world. It’s only fantasy; get it out of your head.

But, there is one movie-couple that has always stuck with me — Driver and Irene from the movie Drive. Drive was for me the film I studied as a young, ignorant student, and where I sought other explanations for its excellence than; “Cool movie, dude.”

I must’ve watched Drive thirty times in the span of one school year. Looking for essays online that explained cinematography, storyline, characters and symbolism like the scorpion on Driver’s jacket — I couldn’t get enough of it.

Drive summarized

Drive is a neo-noir directed by the Danish Nicolas Winding Refn, who has become well known for his often unconventional and controversial films.

Drive is about a silent, lonely man named Driver; his real name is never mentioned. Driver is a stuntman for the movies during the day and makes a little money on the side during the night as a getaway driver for criminals.

Driver comes into contact with his neighbour Irene, who enchants him with her innocent, soft looks. However, Irene turns out to be married to a man getting out of prison just as they meet. The husband has a problem, a debt; he received protection during his time inside in order to survive.

Now that Irene’s husband is out, his family is in danger, his debt is with the people you don’t want to owe a penny. Driver offers to help him, strangely, and the two get tangled up in a plot with the East-Coast mafia, corrupt Hollywood producers and betrayal.

I won’t say more, but despite these classical thriller-elements, Drive has always been a romantic movie to me. At the heart of the action and murder there is a heart wrenching drama about two people not being able to be together.

The director

Nicolas Winding Refn is a renowned director in the art-house niche of cinema. He is famous for his violence, lack of dialogue, ambiguity, intense use of colours, masterful cinematography and provoking, contrarian films that have earned him a boo-ing crowd at the Cannes film festival, twice — not to his displeasure, mind you.

One of the most recognisable aspects about the director personally, is that he is colour blind. He admits, in many interviews, that he can’t see mid-tones, the more subtle colours between powerful, deep tones.

First he viewed it as a weakness, but turned it into his strength later. Nowadays you’ll recognise any Refn-film by its amazing use of deep colours that almost jump off of the screen.

Driver and Irene; the perfect couple?

One of the scenes that will always stay with me, is the moment where Driver and Irene fall in love. It’s two shots, very simple, where they look at each other without saying a word. Yet as viewer we know that that is the moment

But I always wondered about something; if you were to take away the environment, the colour, the music and change the position of the camera — would the acting be as strong as it is?

Don’t get me wrong, the acting in the film is wonderful. Ryan Gosling as the silent warrior trying to help his love, despite the impossibility of being with her is an amazing performance. Carey Mulligan as the duped, yet strong mother is equally outstanding.

But, there has to be more than just acting?


There is. Last year we were introduced to a term in filmschool: mise-en-scène. A term many seasoned veteran of filmmaking has in mind, but most regular consumers don’t.

Mise-en-scène is everything visible in the frame; lighting, costume, the actors, the colours, make-up, props, etc.

It’s not random that acting fits in that sequence. The colours, the costumes, the framing of the camera and the lighting each play off of each other. It has to synergise.

Colours synergise with the acting, and if anything speaks volumes in a Refn-film, it’s colour.

When we look towards the colour combination used for the two, Driver and Irene, we see that the classic form of cyan-blue and orange-yellow has been used. That combination is one of the most prevalent in Hollywood because it works perfectly, and we see it recur everywhere in Drive.

Blue and orange defines Driver in the blue, and Irene in the orange. It’s not only complimentary, but also telling of the story. Driver lives a cold, lonely life, while Irene leads a warm life as a mother, even though she has her problems. Also Irene is to Driver that loving centre while he shows little to no emotion for his own life — he sacrifices himself in an instant for her.


Nicolas Winding Refn is a great example when it comes to using colours to make two people fit together, even better than just acting can.

He shows that acting is more than just acting. There has to be a solid performance, obviously, but it’s never just that. It’s also about the setting, the lighting, the choice in shots, the costumes, and mainly, in the case of Refn, the colours.

So; if you watch a film next time and see whether two people fit together, or not, don’t just look at the acting. You’ll find all the other tools used by the director to make you believe more than just the acting can convince you of.

With this knowledge; look at the image beneath this text, at the colours of the costumes, and try to think of what it means. You’ll be surprisingly able in predicting the story. Let me know in the comments what you came up with.

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